No Shame is richly rewarding in its emotional complexity.
The Lily Allen of No Shame can’t help but sigh at the audacious Allen of Alright, Still more than a decade ago. So much has changed in the intervening years both personally and on a broader cultural scale that it’s not really even worth comparing the two. Where before she was an ebullient, brash new talent with a mouth to match and a highly-touted debut single (“Smile”), subsequent years found her falling further from favor, grabbing tabloid headlines and becoming something of a pop cultural punchline. It’s somewhat fitting, though, considering just how much things have changed since 2006 when her career was essentially launched thanks in part to MySpace. Twitter had only just launched and Facebook was a mere two years old and had yet to open access to anyone ostensibly 13 years old and older and with a valid e-mail address. Public figures could still be taken down a few notches online, but not nearly to the level of oversaturated trolldom that has (hopefully) reached its apex with the Troll-in-Chief himself distractedly playing with the fate of the entire planet in between 4th grade level tweets.
The reggae samples and vintage feel of Alright, Still has long since been abandoned. Even her 2014 attempt at U.S. pop stardom fizzled out miserably, thanks largely to its tone-deaf take on then-contemporary pop music trends. Now, four years later, Allen returns with No Shame, an album steeped in depression, self-analysis, motherhood, the pitfalls of fame, and a general world-weariness that barely sounds like the same Allen we’ve heard previously.
Thirty-three years old and the mother two young girls, the now-divorced Allen has a bit more emotional baggage to sift through, making for a much more melancholy, downcast feel throughout the whole of No Shame. The fuck-you attitude of her debut has been replaced by an exhausted resignation of a voice that more often than not sounds wholly drained of any of the previously possessed enthusiasm. “I tried to keep an open mind/ I feel like I’m under attack all of the time/ I’m compromised, my head can’t always hold itself so high,” she sighs on opening track “Come on Then.” “Yeah, I’m a bad mother, I’m a bad wife/ You saw it on the socials, you read it online/ If you go on record saying that you know me, then why am I so lonely, because nobody phones me.” All of this within the album’s first minute.
From there, she takes a very personal approach to her downcast songwriting, sticking to mid-tempo electronic grooves and rather minimal instrumental accompaniment, relatively speaking. On the haunting piano ballad “Three” (one of several, including the Elton John-via-Lady Gaga-esque “Family Man”) she adopts the perspective of her daughters, taking a look at her life and career from their perspective. “You say you’re going, but you don’t say how long for/ You say it’s work, but I’m not sure/ You say you love me then you walk right out the door/ I’m left here wanting more.” It’s a deeply personal, mature song for a pop record and one that will resonate with any parent who has ever had to leave children behind to travel for work of any kind.
The most unapologetically autobiographical moments come in “Everything to Feel Something,” a track recounting Allen’s troubles with drugs, depression and life in general. When she sings the title, there’s a wealth of sadness behind each and every syllable, the word “everything” repeated multiple times to maximum effect. “What You Waiting For?” explores the dissolution of her marriage and her culpability in its subsequent failure: “Now the dust has settled, I should probably level with you/ Meant it when I said ‘I do’/ Don’t know why I was untrue with everything I put you through/ … Never thought we’d be this couple/ I ran at the first sign of trouble.”
Hardly a collection of feel-good anthems, No Shame is the work of an artist who has been through some heavy shit and managed to come out the other side with a newfound perspective on life. It won’t win any new fans and will likely draw its fair share of criticism, but No Shame is a deceptively powerful album that, though tough to take in one sitting, is richly rewarding in its emotional complexity.